There are two, very clear takeaways that emerge after reading Andrew Ferguson’s review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers, that appeared in The Atlantic last week. First, Ferguson didn’t like the book. Second, Ferguson thinks social science is utter bullshit.
I can’t speak to point 1, having not read it yet; Ferguson may have good reasons to dislike Talking to Strangers. Ferguson’s second point, though, comes through loud and clear. His article drips with disdain for “pop social science” filled with “rickety findings.” Look, I’ll be the first to admit that there are some really dumb, non-rigorous, totally lame studies published under the umbrella of “social science scholarship” but to oversimplify the entire landscape of behavioral and social science this way is a problem. One parallel would be if I were to label all journalists as “liars” writing up “fake news”…(rest assured, I’d never do this, but I bet Ferguson would have problems with people who describe his entire professional discipline in those unsavory terms). Interestingly, he has no problems doing the same thing to social scientists:
“In its most decadent and easily marketed form, social science specializes in taking axioms known to every 19th-century schoolteacher and duding them up as heuristics or effects or biases. Believing that 'a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush' thus becomes loss aversion. 'Counting your chickens before they’re hatched' gets the fancy treatment as projection bias. If you prefer information that seems agreeable to your point of view, social science teaches that you suffer from confirmation bias—no less a defect for having been shared by every human being who ever lived. People who fall for someone because their parents can’t stand her or him are exhibiting the Romeo and Juliet effect. Really. In social psychology, it’s a thing.”
Let me start by saying that these “biases” “heuristics” and “effects” aren’t simply age-old axioms in new duds. They have real world applications…like the confirmation bias? it influences all kinds of human decisions. Consider how your doctor evaluates your lab tests, thinks about evidence, and makes a diagnostic plan about your health. All of those medical judgments and decisions are likely subject to those silly “biases.” Ferguson might think that’s just some dumb axiom not worth investigating, but the 5 million Americans who suffer from medical/diagnostic errors every year might disagree (but I digress…).
It’s 2019, and I kinda thought we’d moved past this attack on social science as being “common sense” and “useless.” (FYI—Ferguson’s treatment of social science isn’t new; Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award was the first installment of this kind of anti-intellectualist rage against social science, that protested the use of NSF funds to support psychological research into romantic relationships and love). Such attacks continue to this day—Several US Senators publish their own volumes of The Wastebook, where they list hundreds of government-funded research projects funded sponsored by NSF or NIH that they deem “wasteful” use of taxpayer dollars. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the “wasteful” projects that fill the pages of our senators’ Wastebook volumes come from social and behavioral science.
Since my own work has been featured in Senator Jeff Flake’s 2015 Wastebook, people might argue that I have a thin skin and am overly reactive to such criticisms of social science research. Indeed, I’ve talked with a few other social scientists whose work has been called out in other Wastebooks, and their response was simply to “laugh it off” because “no one believes these critiques anyway.” Some even told me they consider it a “badge of honor.” I was advised to not respond, develop thicker skin, and simply continue doing my research work, as usual.
So, for a long time, I thought taking the “high road” was the best thing to do; I would show that the critique didn’t bother me by not bothering to respond. Well, I did give a couple of “public” talks, but mostly to audiences who had already realized the importance of social science (COSSA, NCA). But these talks were in front of audiences filled with people who would read the Wastebook, or Ferguson’s review, laugh at the baseless critiques, think they were silly, and move on. But what about the average reader who has little or no real opinion of social science work? Might such arguments fall on receiving ears—not deaf ears? That’s what began to worry me.
Like good a social scientist, I did an experiment to find out. My research team and I asked participants to read different versions of news stories about publicly-funded research projects—some were written in the “scientific” style of social and behavioral research, some in the “public relations” or “journalistic” style of a press/marketing office, and some in the political style of The Wastebook. What we found was that most readers don’t simply laugh at the politicization of social science work as wasteful and move on—they recognize that critique and they internalize it. That is, compared to reading scientific or PR news stories, it was after reading Wastebook-style critiques that people were more likely to think that the research featured in that story was (a) less useful for society, and (b) less worthy of government funding. (see the full study, published recently in Frontiers of Communication).
The final straw that broke this researcher’s back was how Ferguson treated Dr. Tim Levine’s research on deception and truth bias:
“[Gladwell’s catchphrase] default to truth comes to us from a psychologist named Tim Levine, the coiner of his own truth-default theory. Levine designed a series of ingenious experiments on college kids to 'discover' a universal human truth: All things being equal, we are much more likely to believe that people are telling the truth than that they are lying. Gladwell seems more impressed by this insight than he should be. He calls it a 'profound point.' If nothing else, it’s certainly an obvious one.”
Two problems—First, Tim is a communication researcher, not a psychologist. And, having read Tim’s original research and seen him and his colleagues present the findings of these “ingenious experiments” many times, I side with Gladwell. Truth-Default Theory does make a “profound point” because his theory, and others’ findings, are relevant to all of us living in the United States. Government bodies—like the CIA, TSA, DoD—are obsessed with finding “a silver bullet” solution to the problem of lie detection. And all the fancy hardware and software—the polygraphs, eye detectors, voice and facial recognition—mean squat without a better understanding of human communication behavior. Wouldn’t it be important to know the circumstances under which a CIA agent might be more or less likely to default to truth? What (in)valid cues might ICE agents rely on when making judgments about whether someone is a “liar” or a “bad hombre” who is “evading” deportation, versus someone who is “truthfully” “seeking” asylum?
Ok, clearly, I won’t make my case in a single blog post. But I also won’t remain silent anymore when I read unfounded critiques of legitimate social science research work. I’ll call bullshit when I see it.